Robert Head, a former infantryman who spent 29 months in Iraq, isn’t afraid of a fight. An administrative member of Texas Veterans for Medical Marijuana, Head testified for Texas House Bill 1365 in Austin last week. He and many other veterans were among the 60-plus group of people testifying for the bill, which would allow for medical cannabis in Texas.
So far, 33 states and the District of Columbia have legalized medical cannabis. Early leaders in the movement, such as California and Oregon, are fairly liberal, but many of the recent states to get on board tend to be more conservative. In 2018, Missouri, Oklahoma, and Utah all passed laws legalizing medical use of the drug. In 2017, West Virginia voted in favor. All four states have Republican governors and voted overwhelmingly for President Trump in 2016.
These states appreciate the tax revenue cannabis generates, and many people realize the weed-is-a-dangerous-drug mentality is outdated. But, in large part, many conservative states are finally coming around to medical cannabis because veterans have started demanding change. Servicemembers like Head often come home from war zones with chronic pain and post-traumatic stress disorder, and it’s beginning to look like politicians might be willing to pay attention to those issues—even if that means finally accepting progressive policies on weed.
“Veterans fought for everyday freedoms,” says Travis Craig, who used to fly a Chinook helicopter for the Army and now owns and operates The Healing Clinic, a dispensary in Oklahoma. Craig believes veterans help fight the stigma against weed in communities that used to view it as a gateway drug. “People know they have problems. If they see that medical cannabis is helping with those problems, I think that’s going to help.”
Head remembers trying to make the transition to civilian life after the military. He was drinking and taking pills. He couldn’t break down the emotional wall he built as a soldier fighting overseas. He was yelling at his wife and kids. Weed has changed his life. He is calmer and more rational. Veterans struggling with these issues and finding solace in cannabis like he did face a dilemma.
“Are we going to be illegally healthy or legally unhealthy?” he asks. He says that every veteran is coping with their trauma in their own way. “They’re all dealing with these different types of pains, and they’re all on a cocktail of many different types of pills and therapies, and it’s making them worse,” he says. The thing they have in common, though, is that they want a better solution.
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That’s largely how they found themselves at the forefront of this movement, at all levels of the fight. Missouri passed its medical cannabis legislation with 65 percent of the vote. New Approach Missouri, an advocacy and fundraising group whose board includes distinguished vet Tom Mundell, raised $1.5 million to support the proposal. Opposing a war hero like Mundell, whose military honors include a Silver Star, a Bronze Star, a Distinguished Flying Cross, and four Purple Hearts, is not a good look for any political career.
While this sounds promising, a lot of work remains. The Department of Veterans Affairs can’t recommend cannabis because federal law doesn’t allow it, and 17 states, many in the South and Midwest, still don’t allow unqualified medical cannabis use. Texas is one of them for the foreseeable future: Despite the support for the bill, Head doesn’t think enough lawmakers will get on board. “It probably won’t even pass the House because there are so many people dead-set against it,” he says.
A unified stance on weed might indicate similar political beliefs in general, but Texas Veterans for Medical cannabis is made up of people with different lifestyles and politics. “We’re not trying to become a liberal state; we’re trying to become a fair state,” Head says. “I guarantee you the majority of veterans aren’t interested in liberal or Republican. We’re interested in freedom.”
Head points to the example of former House Rep. Pete Sessions, a longtime congressperson who fought every weed bill he could as chairman of the House Rules Committee. When Sessions kicked off his 2018 re-election campaign, he claimed that his Democratic challenger, Colin Allred, had a loose stance on drugs that would result in crack, meth, and heroin becoming legal (Allred supported medical cannabis and decriminalizing small quantities). Texas Veterans for Medical Marijuana and Texas NORML backed Allred, who ended up defeating Sessions. The 2018 Democratic House takeover can be attributed to a number of factors, but losing the support of veterans in Texas will hamstring any candidate.
Another example: Georgia allowed only cancer patients and people suffering from a handful of other conditions to use cannabis oil. State Rep. and Afghanistan veteran David Clark sponsored House Bill 764, which would have expanded the list of conditions to include PTSD and long-term pain. Although that specific bill stalled in the Georgia Senate, Georgia ended up passing the expansion for PTSD and long-term pain in May 2018.
With the Veterans of Foreign of Wars and the American Legion advocating for research on medical cannabis, it’s getting harder to paint weed as an issue important only to stoned college students. In April 2018, the House Committee on Veterans’ Affairs introduced a bipartisan bill to let the VA study cannabis.
“Veterans must have a say in how they manage their pain, and the VA needs to listen to those veterans who are finding relief in medicinal cannabis,” said US Sen. Jon Tester, a Democrat from Montana, in the press release. The bill died in session last year, but a similar bill is in Congress this year.
Craig and Head appreciate the changes they can make at the state level. Until weed is off the Schedule I drug list, however, veterans in certain parts of the country will have to break the law to get something that helps them. In the meantime, they will continue to advocate—and regardless of state politics, it looks like they’ll have a decent shot at changing things.